The final report of this Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cycle – the synthesis report – has appeared today. The report attempts to bring together the evidence provided in the prior reports, starting with the report on 1.5°C in 2018, to provide a final and holistic assessment.
As one of the six senior authors on this report it has been a real eye-opener to see the diverse perspectives of both very distinct disciplines and very distinct voices. We do have to be honest and recognise our enormous privilege relative to very many people, principally in the global south, who live far more precarious lives than we do.
That privilege rests on over a century of unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels, land use change and other activities that have not just contributed to climate change but also over-exploitation of natural resources and the depletion and degradation of nature. It is not somebody else who is principally responsible for this, it is us: you, me and everyone in our society and societies across the global north.
We are witnessing in real-time the consequences of a world that is 1.1°C warmer than in the pre-industrial era owing to our historical and ongoing emissions of heat trapping greenhouse gases. Extreme events such as heat extremes, drought, wildfire, heavy rainfall and flooding are in all regions changing in both frequency and intensity owing to climate change. The changes in many extremes are largest in the global south. Those least responsible, who are most vulnerable, are being affected the most. That simply is not fair.
[ Climate decisions made this decade will last ‘thousands of years’, IPCC report warns ]
We know, and the report reaffirms, that for every increment of warming the impact will get worse. But it is important to recognise that this is not linear. A 1.5°C rise will be much worse than today, a 2°C rise will be much much much worse, and if we go yet further we start getting into unrecognisable futures. Furthermore, the more we warm the planet the further we risk reaching potential tipping points. We must stop treating our atmosphere as a proverbial rubbish bin.
While the report makes clear that it is probable that we will reach 1.5°C warming on a sustained basis in the early part of the next decade it is still in our hands whether we stabilise temperatures at or close to that level or blast right through that and even 2°C. And we must beware the allure of future promises of technological fixes of carbon removal and storage. This is unproven technologically at scale and unproven whether it will be economically viable. We need to stop putting all our casino chips on black. The very best emission is an avoided emission.
The report makes very clear that there are many proven options available to be deployed at scale that can begin to fix this problem. These solutions can not only help ensure a future climate that remains liveable but also address issues of equity, human health, and nature amongst other. This is what is termed in the report climate resilient development.
The report stresses the need to remove persistent barriers and put in place enabling conditions to get this working. We need to recognise and, indeed embrace, that there are very particular national and regional contexts. There is not and cannot be a one-size fits all solution both between and within countries.
Solutions must ultimately be deployed by us as individuals. It is, ultimately, our choices as consumers that determine how much greenhouse gas emissions occur. But there is an enormous role for governments, international institutions, industry, financial institutions and others to set up enabling conditions and inform society at all levels.
Here in Ireland there has been good progress since the Citizens Assembly considerations. The amended climate action law has set up a robust governance structure and the successive climate action plans have begun to flesh out a pathway, even though that pathway remains unclear in important aspects including, critically, unallocated emissions reductions necessary to meet the first carbon budget. The Central Bank has started to take steps to mainstream climate finance aspects. And there are myriad examples of effective actions by individuals and communities. But more can and must be done and the scale and pace of action remains far below what is needed. We need to double down on our action if we are to play our part.
The report makes clear that those who are most impacted by the often difficult decisions ahead of us will need support. Climate action will only be truly effective if it addresses persistent inequities both between and within countries. Solutions need to understand and be tailored to the needs of communities and their particular circumstances. There are very distinct solutions in Kerry and Dublin. They are even more distinct between Ireland and Mali or Peru.
It is also, sadly, the case that we will need to adapt to our changed and changing climate. More adaptation options, with greater feasibility, exist if we keep overall warming to lower levels. Adaptation is inherently a local challenge because the impact varies depending upon local circumstances. Many proven adaptation options exist. But some losses and damages are unavoidable even with effective adaptation.
So we have all the options we need in our toolkit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, to adapt to the changes that are inevitable, and to ensure a healthy planet. This is not a can we are able to kick any further down the road. If we had started taking meaningful action in the latter half of the 20th century we would have many more options open to us. Because we have left it so late – and even today emissions globally are continuing to rise – we have no option but to undertake actions with immediacy and at scale. This is still possible.
The decisions we make this decade will reverberate for hundreds to thousands of years. If we act immediately and at sufficient scale across global societies we can still keep warming well below 2°C and ensure a healthy planet for all. If we do not achieve this then we will leave an impoverished planet and never be forgiven by our children, grandchildren and generations as yet unborn. It is well past time we started acting at the scale that is required.
Every action matters.
Every choice matters.
Now, get cracking.
Peter Thorne is Professor in Physical Geography (Climate Change) at Maynooth University and was one of the authors of the IPCC synthesis report